Welcome to Cyberspace:
What is it? Where is it?
And How Do We Get There?
By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
It started, as the big ideas in technology often do, with a science-fiction writer. William Gibson, a young expatriate American living in Canada, was wandering past the video arcades on Vancouver’s Granville Street in the early 1980’s when something about the way the players were hunched over their glowing screens struck him as odd. “I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids were,” he says. “It was like a feedback loop, with photons coming off the screens into the kids’ eyes, neurons moving through their bodies and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space the game projected.”
That image haunted Gibson. He did not know much about video games or computers—he wrote his breakthrough novel Neuromancer (1984) on an ancient manual typewriter—but he knew people who did. And as near as he could tell, everybody who worked much with the machines eventually came to accept, almost as an article of faith, the realty of that imaginary realm. “They develop a belief that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen,” he says. “Some place that you can’t see but you know is there.” 1. What observation led William Gibson to coin the term “cyberspace”?
Gibson called that space “cyberspace,” and used it as the setting for his early novels and short stories. In his fiction, cyberspace is a computer-generated landscape that characters enter by “jacking in”—sometimes by electrodes directly into sockets implanted in the brain. What they see when they get there is a three-dimensional representation of al the information stored in “every computer in the human system”—great warehouses and skyscrapers of data. He describes it in a key passage in Neuromancer as a place of “unthinkable complexity,” with “lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding . . .” 2. What do the people in the online community mean when they use the word “cyberspace”?
In the years since, there have been other names given to the shadowy space where our computer data reside: the Net, the Web, the Cloud, the Matrix, the Metaverse, the Datasphere, the Electronic Frontier, the information superhighway. But Gibson’s coinage may prove the most enduring. By 1989, it had been borrowed by the online community to describe not some science-fiction fantasy but today’s increasingly interconnected computer systems—especially the millions of computers jacked into the internet.
Now hardly a day goes by without some newspaper article, some political speech, some corporate press release invoking Gibson’s imaginary world. Suddenly it seems, everybody has an e-mail address, from Hollywood moguls to the *Holy See. . . .
All this is being breathlessly reported in the press, which has seized o cyberspace as an all-purpose buzzword that can add sparkle to the most humdrum development or assignment.
*Holy See: Roman Catholic Church’s seat of authority; the Vatican.
For working reporters, many of who have just discovered the pleasures of going online, cyber has become the prefix of the day, and they are spawning neologisms as fast as they can type: cyberphilia, cyberphobia, cyberwonk. . . . 3. Why is the telephone conversation a good example of a visit to cyberspace?
What is cyberspace? According to John Perry Barlow, a rock-n-roll lyrist turned computer activist, it can be defined most succinctly as “that place you are in when you are talking on the telephone.” That’s as good as place to start as any. The telephone system, after all, is really a vast global computer network with a distinctive, audible presence (crackling static against an almost inaudible background hum). By Barlow’s definition, just about everybody has been to cyberspace. It is marked by the feeling that the person you are talking to is “in the same...